During the past three months, I’ve learned more about the mechanics and scope of “the digital realm”, which I so insistently mentioned in my first Digital Narrative, than ever before. I’m currently taking two courses that have served as gateways to aspects of this realm that I had never quite understood, and in some cases, never considered. It somewhat feels like having a VIP behind-the-scenes pass that has allowed me to comprehend how websites, applications, and digital projects work, and (even more exciting) how I can develop my own. I now not only have my own hosted domain through the NYU Web Hosting Pilot, but I’ve also set up my own servers and created websites from scratch.
The first class I’m referring to (you guessed it!) is the same one for which I created this blog: Introduction to Digital Humanities. The second one is called The Politics of Code. It is evident from their names that these two courses have different foci (humanities vs. politics), yet I constantly find myself referencing one when talking about the other, and applying skills learned in one when working on the other. The digital projects discussed in both are quite similar, and sometimes even the same. To me, this is proof of the multidisciplinarity that the digital environment allows. One same project can possess different, simultaneous perspectives. For instance, I put the link of On the Origin of Species: The Preservation of Favoured Traces in one of my blog posts, as an example of a project about asynchronous connections. However, I first encountered this website in a The Politics of Code lecture. Our professor used it as an example of how the politics of the times influenced the editions of the books.
Becoming acquainted with the tools that are used to build websites, applications, and digital projects, as well as the skills needed to take advantage of them, is what feels to me like a behind-the-scenes pass; it helps me access a space in which anything can be done, from visualizing the networks created by characters in Hamlet (for the youngsters: yes, kind of like Facebook) to mapping restaurants in Abu Dhabi city in order to gather information about the city itself.
It is in understanding these tools and skills that the key to the digital realm resides – beginning with figuring out how units as simple as “strings”, for example, behave (when manipulated by software) and using this knowledge at your convenience.
Now is a good moment to bring the internet back into the conversation. As you might remember from my childhood stories, my fascination with the internet stems from its characteristic breadth of content (so many online games!). If you know how to create content in the first place, then the possibilities for your content are endless, once it’s put online. With the internet as medium, the knowledge that you generate can be accessed by virtually anyone; it spreads around the world, connecting individuals through their curiosity and interests. In the field of digital humanities, this act of sharing is fundamental: when projects circulate around the web, they grow bigger (more data is added to the original set, through crowdsourcing for instance), better (improvements made by other users, or new, more specific projects inspired the older ones), and are given a purpose that goes beyond their mere existence: they educate users/viewers on a topic, and encourage new questions that might lead to new research, analysis, and interpretation.
The problem is that the behind-the-scenes pass is, indeed, VIP. To begin with, not every person in the world has access to a computer and/or the internet. Even less people understand how to use the tools and skills I’ve been talking about. What I’ve learned in this class so far has allowed me to explore subjects that I find thought-provoking, and to answer questions about them. Not everyone can do the same. Even if I share my findings online, not everyone can learn from them.
A second issue is the fact that, though it’s true that a vast variety of projects and analyses can be carried out with digital tools, they have their limits. Programs are flexible until a certain point, but they can’t solve every problem and extract every kind of information. They don’t adapt to every research process; processes, rather, must often adapt to them. We experienced this very clearly when using websites such as Voyant Tools, CARTO (with its slightly confusing and more restrictive new interface), and even SketchUp (though, to be honest, this last one is mostly me not really knowing how to use it).
So it is magic. Only, it’s he same kind of magic that requires dial up before the tricks can begin: not as smooth and powerful as we initially think.